Talk of interest on 11/08: Polly Jacobson

The Logic Colloquium on Friday, November 08, 1:30-3:00pm in the Humanities Institute, will feature Pauline Jacobsen, semanticist from Brown University. Title and abstract below.

Variable Free Semantics: Putting competition effects where they belong

This talk will have two parts. First I will discuss the approach to semantics making no use of variable names, indices, or assignment functions that I have advocated in a series of papers (see especially Jacobson, 1999, Linguistics and Philosophy and 2000, Natural Language Semantics, also exposited in Jacobson 2014 textbook Compositional Semantics, OUP).    There are a number of theoretical and empirical advantages to this approach, which will be just briefly reviewed. To mention the most obvious theoretical advantage: the standard use of variable names and indices in semantics requires meanings to be relativized to assignment functions (assignments of values to the variable names), adding a layer to the semantic machinery. This program eliminates this and treats all meanings as ‘healthy’ model theoretic objects (the meaning of a pronoun, for example, is simply the identity function on individuals, not a function from assignments to individuals).   I will then show a new empirical payoff, which concerns competition effects found in ellipsis constructions.  These competition effects have gone under the rubric of MaxElide in the linguistics literature.  One example centers on the contrast in (1) (on the reading where each candidates hope is about their own success):

(1) a. Harris is hoping that South Carolina will seal the nomination for her, and Warren is too.
(= ‘hoping that it will seal nomination for  her (Warren)’)
b. ?* Harris is hoping that South Carolina will seal the nomination for her, and Warren is also hoping that it will (=’seal the nomination for  her (Warren)’)

The ‘standard’ wisdom is there is a constraint in the grammar that when material is ‘missing’ (or, ‘elided’) if a bigger constituent can be elided, the bigger ellipsis is required. Why the grammar should contain such a constraint is a total mystery; moreover I and others have argued elsewhere that grammatical competition constraints represent a real complication in the grammar. When there are competition effects they should be located in speakers and hearers (we know that speakers and hearers do  compute alternatives – Gricean reasoning, for example, is based on that assumption).  Under the variable free account, the missing material in (1a) is of a different type than that in (1b).  In (1a), the listener need only supply the property ‘be an x such that x hopes that SC will seal nomination for x’ which is the meaning of the VP in the first clause.  In (1b) what must be supplied is the 2-place relation ‘seal the nomination for’ (note that this is in part because the pronoun her in the first clause is not a variable, and so [[seal the nomination for her]] is the function from an individual x to the property of sealing the nomination for x, which in turn is the two place relation named above.  The competition effect is thus about types not size, and can be given a plausible explanation in terms of communicative pressures.  Assuming that meanings of more complex types are more difficult to access than those of simpler types, there is a pressure for speakers to choose the simpler type ellipsis.  The type competition story crucially relies on the claim that expressions containing pronouns unbound within them denote functions from individuals to something rather than functions from assignment functions.